I was telling someone the other day about my nephew, the one who died of AIDS in 1994, and how I used to be so outraged when people felt compelled to ask, “How did he catch it?” If I was feeling kind, I might have said, “I don’t know,” which was technically true, but if I am brutally honest with myself, I have to admit that, more often than not, my response was a snippy, “What difference does it make?”
He was sick. He was suffering. He was going to die. His parents were going to have to bury their only son and carry that grief for the rest of their lives. All of that seemed so much more significant than how the virus entered his body.
What difference does it make? Is his suffering any less worthy of compassion because of how he caught the disease? Do we grieve less because he “got what he deserved”?
Of course not.
When the AIDS crisis became very real and personal, it broke my heart open. I couldn’t see AIDS patients as “those people”—at least one AIDS patient was my people. The line between me and “them” began to blur and fade. I sat with my questions about people who were different from me for years, letting the answers percolate. I moved way outside my comfort zone as a chaplain resident in San Francisco, both working alongside and doing my best to minister to human beings whose sexuality differed from mine, people who would be welcomed in my church (but would not be allowed to get married there).
And just when I was beginning to think that my heart had settled because God’s capacity for love is way bigger than mine, I learned that someone I know and dearly love now prefers to be called by pronouns other than the ones I have been using all these years.
I can already hear my uber-liberal friends celebrating, while the conservative ones are insisting there is something terribly wrong here, and I’m right back to, OK, what do I really believe about all of this? (Which is a question we all need to be asking ourselves on a regular basis anyway.) I’m not yet ready to celebrate a new-found identity that may or may not be the answer this person is looking for, nor am I at all interested in judgment and condemnation.
I always start with the assumption that we have all been subject to the destructive influences of this broken world since conception, maybe even sooner. I believe, as the Psalmist says, that “in Your book were written all the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” God knew exactly how I was supposed to turn out. And then life happened, literally. From the moment of my conception—maybe even from the moments the individual sperm and ovum that merged to produce me were formed—genetic, hormonal, environmental and other forces waged their battles in every aspect of my rapidly developing and highly vulnerable being.
I have a grandchild whose genetics went awry, leaving him with a very distinctive countenance that in no way reflects the kindness in his heart nor the keenness of his intellect. Yet he has suffered for decades at the hands of unkind and insensitive children and adults who stare and tease and bully anyone who looks different.
I have a friend whose grandchild drew a much crueler hand in the great genetic lottery, a young child whose life will be ended, horribly, over the next several years, due to a genetic defect. I can’t even imagine the grief the parents and grandparents must have felt as the doctors explained the inexorable progress of the disease: blindness, seizures, cognitive declines, physical deterioration, increasing pain and death. There is no cure, there are no life-prolonging or symptom-mitigating treatments, nothing they can do but watch the nightmare unfold, and all because of that one little hiccup when the inherited DNA was busy splitting and recombining.
Things go wrong. As I said in an earlier post, when our grandchildren get to heaven, we will be able to see them as God intended for them to be, free from the constraints imposed by their miscreant chromosomes. But meanwhile, they, and so many others, live with differences that they did not ask for and would not have chosen for themselves. So what makes us think that we can draw a line at any point along the continuum and say, these things are inevitable and therefore acceptable, while those things are obviously choices that we disapprove of?
When someone experiences a disconnect between who they are supposed to be and who they feel they are, does that mean the body turned left while the psyche continued on course? Or were there forces that drove the heart and soul in a different direction while the body continued full steam ahead? Was this person intended by God to be the gender their body would proclaim, or were they originally intended to be someone their body is not?
I can’t answer that, and neither can you. Building a human being is so incredibly complex, and there are so many ways things can be derailed, it’s almost surprising that so many of us are pretty close to “normal.”
What difference does it make? Absolutely none. I love this person no matter what pronouns they want me to use. I don’t know why they are choosing to identify differently, nor do I need to understand it. My prayer for them is that they find the peace they are seeking, and that they come to know they are a precious child of God, beautiful and beloved beyond all understanding, as they continue to discover who they were created to be all along.